This is actually kind of a serious post so the puns in the title are quite facetious. Still, one can never resist, and comedy and tragedy are so often two sides of the same coin.
Fiction can be dark, it can be confronting, and it can be full of horror and violence and issues that people would rather not think about. Some of our society’s favourite books and films are the ones full of death, misery, war, psychological trauma, violent prejudice and sexual abuse. They are horrible things, but they are present in humanity, unfortunately, and so they appear in our art. This does not suit everyone, understandably so.
Question of the week, then: should we shy away from these ugly societal issues for our audience’s peace of mind? On the one hand, no, absolutely not. Fiction is a canvas for expression and so it should, at its most powerful, shock, evoke emotion, and perturb. But it’s not all about literary merit, though works that handle dark topics are often critically hailed (and very popular)—as well as creating empathetic and fantastically dark pieces of fiction, having these themes in literature can bring them to light where they wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Seeing sensitive topics in books can educate and raise awareness to the more sheltered audience members that didn’t even know they existed (i.e. me, reading half the YA section at my high school library and having my quiet little mind blown), and start conversations about these important issues where they wouldn’t have arisen otherwise.
This is why there is so much backlash against banning books, especially the practice of keeping texts with touchy or ‘adult’ themes out of school courses. I went to a dialogue at a writer’s festival with Justine Larbalestier, Libba Bray and her husband the literary agent, all of whom agreed that the term ‘adult themes’ was a product from the back end of a bull. They asked, what are adult themes? Taxes? Politics? Supposedly dark and mature elements like sexuality, violence, drugs, mental health and emotional development are all just human themes, products of life on the earth we have.
Having these confronting themes running through our literature teaches people about the dark side of the human condition and leads to discussion of important and weighty issues. And, if any reader or viewer has experienced something along those lines, it will strike a chord with them and they can find an empathetic and possibly cathartic connection with the characters. And maybe it will be the vessel through which they express themselves, and it could very well save and improve lives.
Not to say, of course, that we should fling these issues into people’s faces willy-nilly. I acknowledge, for example, the acclaim of A Clockwork Orange and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and that they have much literary merit, while knowing that I will probably never read or watch them because I don’t wish to be bombarded with graphic scenes of sexual violence. I acknowledge that those scenes are important to the story while being confronting, the same way the n-word can be forgiven (ish) for being bandied around so profusely in Django Unchained, since it’s set in slavery-era America and the film makes a conscious effort to portray how horrid that was. Sometimes harsh content is appropriate as it gives its narrative weight, power and realism.
Overkill certainly exists in this case, and you have to consider the fine line between tapping into violent themes for empathy and narrative strength, and just bringing them into play for shock value. For example, the story arc of Daenerys (yep, talking about Game of Thrones again) features sexual abuse both by her scumbag brother and the husband she is sold to essentially as a sex slave. The Dothraki race she is parcelled off to is portrayed as savage and bloodthirsty and a traditional wedding just isn’t complete without at least three deaths and a whole lot of rape-excusing undertones.
This is honed in on for all its worth in the HBO adaptation (as is the general slapping around of women by the characters and the plot all over the place, but more on that in a second). Daenerys’ character arc, of course, involves her rising above all the terrible things that have happened to her and becoming one of the strongest players in the game (thus being the only one in the third season who was having any semblance of a good time). You could argue that, from a narrative perspective, the more suffering she goes through at the start the more satisfying it is when she kicks everyone’s asses at the other end of her journey. But at one point does generating sympathy for her just become torture porn?
There is a scene in the second season where Sansa is pursued and nearly gang-raped, the sliminess of her assailants made evident enough for the viewer to feel immense satisfaction when she is rescued and her predators disembowelled. Joffrey is made even more demonic with a scene where he orders two women to beat each other bloody. Ros, an entirely new character, seems to have been introduced by the show writers to be a composite character for several of the prostitutes running around… and also to be preyed on and beaten up as much as possible. And in general, it being Game of Thrones, there’s a lot of graphic injury and torture and pain and horribleness.
Yes, putting characters in danger creates tension and putting them through pathos creates an emotional connection, but there comes a point where it’s simply too graphic and overhauled to even appreciate as part of the construction of the art, and it just becomes unnecessary. There is a line between using confronting, triggering themes and imagery in a work for poignancy and abusing them as a device to squick out the audience. The same could be said for any crime show with mentally unstable villains—at what point does it turn from a terrifying and intriguing mindgame with a chaotic antagonist into using ‘crazy’ people as the best scare tactic?
It removes any sense of respect for people who may have experienced the issues in play, be they anything from racial prejudice to mental illness to sexual harassment. It also unnecessarily confronts and attacks the audience.
And, if done enough, the shock of it wears off. That’s even worse—if we become so used to this imagery, it removes the emotional and societal weight of it, leading to it being breezed over and accepted. And, in response, some writers feeling the need to up the ante and make things even more disgusting to get the desired effect.
Bashing the bejeezus out of your characters (or sending them on a despair-filled coming of age story, or flinging them into a dystopian or horribly fantastical world, choose your recipe for suffering) can be good for tension and audience empathy when done well, but if it’s the go-to to try and generate a reaction, that raises all sorts of iffiness, especially if the writers in question are delving headfirst into issues of mental health, death or abuse without handling them with the proper amount of grace and respect.
I don’t think we should step back and keep these weighty topics taboo. Fiction is a way to broach those boundaries and explore all the terror of the world we live in within abstract grounds. However, as a writer and an audience it’s important to remember that the presence of these themes will have an effect on people. Remember, if someone doesn’t want to watch or read something because it triggers them, do not force them to. Accept that people all like different things and not everyone wants sex and violence shoved in their faces, even if they are part of profound, moving and valuable works. It falls under the general philosophical umbrella I try to live by, which is basically Don’t Be a Cock.
You also do not have to excuse and enjoy problematic handling of these big issues if you like the work they appear in. I love Game of Thrones, but I’m the first to admit that it’s loaded with issues, the series and the books alike. You’re also allowed to hate a novel or movie that deals with them well, since you can acknowledge that something is well put together without legitimately enjoying it (which, as far as I can figure, covers a lot of issue-filled literature studied in schools). And also important to remember, just because it has these themes in it, it does not automatically make the work ascend to some intellectual plane littered with literary prizes. If you’re going to put your characters (and abstractly your readers) through these things, handle them with grace and depth and don’t just chuck them in because it will get people’s attention.
Related reading: How to Be a Fan of Problematic Things (which I’m linking to again, because it’s just so good and you might have missed it).